Doing an Unworkshop at the Highlights Foundation

10 Oct

I am writing this from a comfy couch in my very last hour at the Highlights Foundation in Boyds Mills, PA (and posting it from home a few days later!). This is the second year that I’ve teamed up with a group of writing friends that I met via Pitch Wars to do an “unworkshop” at Highlights’ lovely facility in the mountains, and I wanted to share my experience for others interested in booking a stay.

You probably know Highlights from their wonderful magazines for children, but they also have a campus where they offer workshops for writers, work with groups to provide custom events, and offer “unworkshops” year-round for writers to make their own retreat weekend. In an unworkshop, writers come to campus whenever they want, and use their time however they want. Highlights provides delicious meals, which writers can eat while chatting with other unworkshoppers, or take back to their cabins to enjoy in solitude. The campus includes a beautiful barn with meeting rooms and a dining room, several one-writer cabins with private bathrooms, a farmhouse with five rooms and five bathrooms, and a lodge with a meeting room and several private bed/bathroom suites. Each room has a chair and desk for writing, plus bug spray and a flashlight!

When you arrive, there is no official check-in. You just find your name on your cabin/room and the key is in the door.

Here are some pictures of my darling cabin:

Cabin at Highlights Foundation
The inside of a cabin at Highlights Foundation
Cabins at Highlights Foundation

One of the most amazing parts of Highlights is the food! Every meal is prepared with as many local ingredients as possible. Before dinner each night, the chef gives a talk about the food they have prepared. Highlights is a wonderful place to feel cared for as a writer and person—a break from the chaos of daily life and “What’s for dinner tonight?” Meals are served buffet style; at each meal, I sat with the writers I came with as well as other writers there for Unworkshops.

Buffet at Highlights

While writers are welcome to come stay at Highlights on their own, I was first introduced to this campus when a few writers I knew via Pitch Wars suggested that we all book an “unworkshop” at the same time. Last year was our first year. I was nervous about spending so much time with people I only knew from the internet, but it was so amazing that we booked a second trip and are planning a third! We did run into trouble with Highlights running out of space this year. We only booked our trip for October in late August, and this was too late! A few folks stayed in a nearby AirBnB on Friday night because Highlights was full, but came to write with us during the day.

Here was our group, minus Erin Luken, who had to leave before we got our act together for a picture. From left to right: Robin St. Clare, Dave Kane, Laura Lashley, Leigh Mar, and me!

Of course, when you book a writing retreat with other writers, there is always a danger that you will spend the entire time talking and not writing. Our group was very disciplined about this! We set a timer for an hour during which we would all work quietly. Then we would take a five minute break to stretch and chat. We told each other about our writing goals for each day and chatted about whether we’d reached them. During the sumptuous meals, we talked more casually and got to know some of the other writers staying at Highlights. After dinner, we’d fit in a few more hours of work before heading to our cabins. Last year, we spent an hour critiquing each other’s queries and/or first pages. This year, we didn’t set a time to do that officially, but I did ask everyone to weigh in on some picture book revisions I was working on, and we all bounced ideas off each other informally.

Highlights has some beautiful spaces to write alone or to gather with a group. We worked in the farmhouse, the library, and the loft of the barn. If it had been less rainy, we also could have worked outside!

The couches in the library at Highlights
Farmhouse at Highlights Foundation

Each writer in the group had different goals. A few worked on revising novels. Another worked on drafting a novel. Last year, on my first trip, I focused on revising a novel. I reread it, wrote a revision plan, and got started on my revisions. This year, I thought I would work on revising another novel, as it’s hard for me to find the large chunks of time needed to revise a novel in my daily life. However, I had a lot of ideas for picture books and essays that I hadn’t found time to work on either. I knew it would be hard for me to work on a novel regularly when I returned home because I had several trips planned in the next month, on top of my normal workload as a freelance editor and mom of a toddler. 

I set goals for myself to accomplish over the weekend without any real ideas of how long these things would take. I wanted to: 

  • Write or revise 4 essays/blog posts
  • Write 4 new picture books
  • Revise 4 picture books
  • Write or revise 4 poems to submit to kids magazines
  • Submit 10 essays for publication (including sending one essay to multiple places)

Each day, I started out with the task I thought would be the hardest. I saved tasks I thought would be easier, like line editing an essay or researching publications, for the night time, when I would be tired. I didn’t meet some goals, but I also far exceeded others. Here’s what I actually accomplished:

  • I revised 7 essays/blog posts
  • I wrote 8 essays/blog posts (including this one)
  • I revised 6 picture books
  • I wrote 3 new picture books
  • I submitted 2 essays to publications (The wi-fi at Highlights is a little slow—which is great when you want to write without distraction, but not so great for researching publications and submission guidelines!)
  • I wrote 1 poem

I’m really proud of everything I accomplished! While I still have a few ideas for picture books and essays that I didn’t have time to work on, I’ve got a lot of solid drafts. I’ll be well-positioned for sending my essays to publications in the coming weeks at home with good wi-fi and updating my blog here.

I also wanted to get some exercise, at least on the days with good weather. Sitting at my computer for so many hours doesn’t tend to make my body feel very good. 

I wanted to go for a run AND a walk everyday. That was a little ambitious. I ran for three of the four days, and went on a walk on the other. It was pretty rainy on the day I only walked, plus, the hills at Highlights are huge! 


Here are some of the beautiful views from my runs. My glutes hurt just looking at those hills. 

Big hill near Highlights Foundation
Barn near Highlights Foundation


Well, as I sign off from this recap to head home, I am feeling pretty great about everything I accomplished this weekend. Staying at Highlights for three nights and four days feels like just about the right amount of time. My brain is pretty tired from writing so much, and as the days went on, I found it a little harder to work on picture books. I struggle to just sit down and come up with ideas for picture books on demand, so now that I’ve caught up on most of the ideas I wanted to try, it’s time to let my mind rest.

I hope I’ll be back next year! Do you have questions about doing an Unworkshop at Highlights or experiences of your own to share? Leave a comment!

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